The incredible expanding town

The town of Woodfin has been perched on Asheville’s northern border since 1971, when it incorporated to avoid annexation by the city.

High on the mountaintop: Reynolds Mountain, which has raised the ire of some activists, as seen from Woodfin. The developer will own and fund much of Woodfin’s new downtown. photos by Jonathan Welch

Through most of that time, there was relatively little growth in Woodfin, and the last census showed residents’ median income to be about $5,000 lower than in Asheville.

But the last few years have seen dramatic change. The population, which stood at just 3,172 in 2000, has doubled since then, town officials say, and an aggressive annexation program has Woodfin poised to become the second-largest municipality in Buncombe County.

“The town has been undergoing an extraordinary period of growth over the last five years,” notes Town Administrator Jason Young, who has overseen and directed much of it. “We’ve expanded greatly, and we feel good about that. We think it’s served the people of Woodfin well.”

Annexation is only part of the story: Woodfin is also in the process of creating an entire downtown from scratch. The 236-acre project, with an estimated $225 million price tag, is being built by local high-end developer Reynolds Mountain in collaboration with Cherokee Investment Partners, a Raleigh-based equity firm (see “County Considers Redevelopment Plan for Woodfin,” Nov. 15, 2006, Xpress). The town has also taken other, smaller steps to attract new businesses, including a 2006 referendum that approved liquor by the drink.

“Ready for the 21st century”: Mayor Jerry VeHaun says the town isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

Mayor Jerry VeHaun feels Woodfin is “ready to go into the 21st century” and well positioned to take advantage of both its proximity to Asheville and its more laissez-faire development environment. The town has the lowest property taxes of any municipality in the county and less regulation than its larger urban neighbor. So far, Woodfin shows no signs of adopting the county’s new storm-water and steep-slope-development ordinances, which don’t automatically apply to incorporated areas.

“We don’t have a lot of the regulations that you hear a lot of complaints from developers about,” says VeHaun. “With both businesses and residents, I think you’ve got a much more user-friendly approach.”

Not everyone is happy about the town’s ambitious course, however. Last summer, more than 250 people turned out for a public hearing on the most recent annexations; not a single person spoke in favor of them. Critics charge that Woodfin—a town founded to head off involuntary annexation—is now annexing territory to boost its own revenue while offering few services in return.

Weaverville, Woodfin’s neighbor to the north, felt those annexations were coming too close to its own borders, though the two towns have since struck a deal. Meanwhile, Woodland Hills residents are challenging Woodfin’s attempted annexation in court. And groups such as the Mountain Voices Alliance maintain that Woodfin’s lack of regulation and developer-friendly attitude will cause long-term environmental and cultural problems.

“I hope that Woodfin will consider all the liabilities of anything they do and the development they encourage,” says MVA co-founder Heather Rayburn. “The course they’re plotting so far doesn’t seem to. People talk about the development going on in Reynolds Mountain because it’s so shocking.” The controversial residential project, which straddles the Woodfin/Asheville boundary, has the same name as its developer.

John Metcalf, director of business development at Reynolds Mountain, defends his company’s projects. “I think this is headed to a sustainable community that is enlivened and enriched by the businesses that are in place,” he maintains. “We’re a part of Woodfin. It’s something they need; it’s something we want to provide.

“For years, you could drive through Woodfin and not know you were here. We hope that at the end of our time we provide a sense of legacy for Woodfin.”

It remains to be seen whether the town’s current course will bring the economic benefits proponents predict—or inflict the damage opponents decry. But the quick, aggressive growth has left residents and neighbors alike wondering what the future holds.

Growing and growing

Point man: As town administrator, Jason Young has overseen Woodfin’s ambitious — and controversial — drive to grow. photo by Jonathan Welch

Town Administrator Jason Young—a 35-year-old Charleston, S.C., native and UNCA grad—wears many hats. His office reflects that, with charts piled against the walls. Young has researched and presented many key measures during the growth spurt, including both the downtown plan and the annexations. He’s also gone head-to-head with opponents in public meetings—and taken heat for it. In one session last summer, an irate annexation foe swore that if the town went ahead with its plans, residents would elect a new Board of Aldermen—and appoint a new town administrator.

But Young calls the annexations a matter of survival. “There was a real concern long term that if the town was—not encircled, but at least blocked in several directions—[its] economic stability … would be at stake,” he explains. Young also feels the annexed areas have benefited. “The town has taken on areas that were served by dirt roads for 20 years, and we’ve come in, paved the roads, provided police services.”

Mayor VeHaun strikes a similar note. “We were looking to expand that way in the future, and many of those areas were being considered by the city of Asheville,” he says. “We had to expand quickly to ensure the town’s future.”

Plans for the new downtown include 551 residential units as well as retail, office space, restaurants, a public park, a business/medical center and a civic center. To jump-start the project, Woodfin plans to use “tax-increment financing”—a controversial tool narrowly approved by state voters in a 2004 referendum—that allows municipalities to borrow against the projected increase in property-tax revenues to finance the construction of roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure in connection with a development project.

Last November, at Woodfin’s request, the Buncombe County commissioners approved issuing $25 million in TIF bonds to help fund the new downtown. Reynolds Mountain will initially own and help develop the property, especially the residential and commercial areas. Between them, Reynolds Mountain and Cherokee Investment Partners plan to pump another $200 million into the development.

Roughly two-thirds of the property, which includes a former landfill site, will be reborn as Reynolds Valley—a new public park that will be turned over to the town. Current plans call for 40 percent of the downtown area to remain green. Reynolds Village, a mix of commercial and residential space, will be tucked between Reynolds Valley and the existing Reynolds Mountain residential development.

Metcalf says his company got interested in the area because “it had been under option by Wal-Mart and Sears; we obtained the village area as a protective measure. We didn’t know then what we wanted to do, but we knew … we didn’t want a big-box retailer sitting in the middle of this town.”

On March 6, the state’s Local Government Commission approved Woodfin’s TIF district, clearing the way for the project to proceed. Major construction, said Young, is slated to begin in June and continue over the next six years.

An unrelated legal challenge to tax-increment financing is pending, but Young says he’s not worried. “There’s been a lawsuit filed in the eastern part of the state by the same group that’s filing suit against the lottery,” he explains. “We’re interested in getting started, and we believe we know where this is going to end up at the end of the day. … We’re in the process of changing the terms of the contract so we can move forward with this.”

What’s in it for us?

“Just for the money”: Woodland Hills resident and former neighborhood spokesperson Jim Eaker says greed drives Woodfin’s expansion. photo by David Forbes

For some of Woodfin’s neighbors, the most immediate impact of the town’s rapid growth has been the threat of annexation.

Last July, the town’s Board of Aldermen had to move a planned public hearing to Woodfin Elementary, where more than 250 mostly unhappy people packed the bleachers. For three-and-a-half hours, residents of the targeted areas voiced their concerns, asserting—sometimes loudly—that greed, more than any other motive, was driving Woodfin’s sudden expansion.

One hotbed of opposition is the Woodland Hills community just north of Woodfin. Longtime resident Jim Eaker, who chairs the Woodland Hills Homeowners’ Association, was the community’s primary spokesman during much of the annexation battle. The reason the opposition ran so deep, he maintains, is simple: Woodfin wasn’t offering anything in return.

“After the town’s presentation to our association, we asked for a show of hands: About 97 percent were against the annexation,” said Eaker. “Woodfin does not offer water; they do not offer sewer. We’d still be under Weaverville’s Fire Department. The only thing they were providing us was police protection and garbage pickup. Therefore we were paying dearly for something that we already had. They couldn’t come up with any reason why we’d be better off in Woodfin.”

Senior citizens, notes Eaker, were particularly riled. “We have a lot of people here on fixed incomes and many that don’t want to attend meetings at night—but they’ve probably been more supportive and more anti-annexation than anybody.”

After they’d decided to fight, the association started marshaling a war chest. “We later asked each household … to put in $100 for a lawyer’s fee, to take this all the way to the appeals court, if necessary. We got an excellent response,” he recalls.

Most of Woodland Hills’ roughly 600 households (including Eaker’s) were subsequently dropped from the annexation plan; Woodfin officials said they’d re-assessed the cost of providing services to those areas. But some parts of the community are still targeted, and those residents are using the money raised to mount a legal challenge. Valerie Smith, who’s now leading the opposition and overseeing the lawsuit, declined to comment for legal reasons.

“The image everyone puts out is that the city will always win these annexations,” says Eaker. “In Superior Court, they normally get a ruling in their favor, but not so in the appeals court. It can be opposed. …

“There shouldn’t have to be a lawsuit over this; people might not oppose it if they were offered something. But in the end, people were left with the impression that they were after our lots just for the money.” Eaker emphasizes, however, that Woodfin’s staff and administration were quite cordial throughout the process.

Young, meanwhile, downplays the significance of the resistance. “Anytime you do an annexation, especially an involuntary one, it’s going to be controversial,” he notes. “People are concerned about growth and development, and they’re concerned about their taxes. In this case, you had a well-organized homeowners’ association that took it upon itself to foment concern and go door to door. That’s their right, and we encourage everybody to do that.”

Still, Young believes the controversy will die down in time. “These people should go talk to the people we annexed in 2003. I think you’ll find that these people are, by and large, very happy with what they’ve received. There wasn’t a big hue and cry. The mayor was uncontested in the last election, and we haven’t had revolt in the streets.”

Getting personal

Heather Rayburn grew up in north Asheville, where she still lives, and her first job was in Woodfin. Her family owned a business in the town for years, and she owns rental property there.

Rayburn is also active in the Mountain Voices Alliance. But when she spoke on the group’s behalf at a Board of Aldermen meeting in December—calling on Woodfin to adopt the county’s steep-slope-development and storm-water ordinances and criticizing the kind of development she sees taking place in the town—Young lit into her. Producing photos of Rayburn’s rental properties, he said they were not well maintained and had prompted complaints. That sparked an outcry from the audience, however, and Young put away his pictures.

But the town administrator went on to voice praise for Reynolds Mountain, which Rayburn had lambasted. If someone is going to criticize development, he maintained, they should be held accountable for the condition of their own property.

The exchange left a bad taste in Rayburn’s mouth. “In one way, I feel sorry for him, because he’s got a lot of work. But in another way, I was really angry,” she told Xpress later. “He turned a public citizen making a good-faith effort into a personal attack against me, and I thought that was really nasty and ugly. That sends a message to people.”

The bigger picture

From scratch: An artist’s rendition of Woodfin’s downtown, including a park, restaurants and apartments, from the town’s development plan.

Environmental concerns again claimed the spotlight later in the same meeting, when residents of nearby Alexander criticized Woodfin’s plans to voluntarily annex a piece of property in their area where a Miami-based developer was planning a subdivision. That project has since been put on hold due to legal issues and concerns about water scarcity and the area’s proximity to Weaverville.

The Mountain Voices Alliance argues that Woodfin is attracting the wrong kind of development—and thereby courting serious long-term consequences. The town is woefully underprepared to deal with the kind of extensive development it’s now actively encouraging, the group maintains. “Woodfin doesn’t have a planning department—they just have that town administrator,” notes Rayburn. “They’re proud of Reynolds Mountain, so we’ve got this disconnect over community planning. The feeling out in the community is that a lot of developers ask to be annexed into Woodfin because they’re not as strict as Buncombe County—[which isn’t] very strict either. [Woodfin does] have some planning ordinances, but … they really need some trained urban planners.”

Rayburn praises Woodfin’s new downtown project, saying, “I think what they’re doing down there is great—they need a town center.” But she takes a dim view of some of the town’s other plans. “They may say, ‘Well, who are you to tell us what to do?’” notes Rayburn, “but I can see Reynolds Mountain; Asheville can see that. If they want to operate as if they’re not part of the larger community, then that’s a problem. What they do really impacts us.”

Some of those impacts are related to the kind of sites now favored by high-end developers. “We’re in an area that’s been designated as high risk for landslides—these steep-slope developments need to have a geotechnical analysis,” says Rayburn. “It just feels like they’re going guns blazing, and the No. 1 thing on their list is economic development. Well, our No. 1 priority is environmental stewardship. I wish they’d be more progressive in their land-use policies.”

Metcalf, however, notes that the Asheville, Buncombe County and Woodfin planning boards all signed off on parts of Reynolds Mountain. The development, he points out, has not been cited for any erosion-control violations.

He also emphasizes that by clustering the homes, the development has preserved more green space. “The town homes, however unsightly they may be at this phase of development, really fall in line with the concept of sustainability. We have intentionally clustered them so we could put 35 acres in a conservation easement,” says Metcalf. “We believe that lowers the overall impact to the mountain and certainly reduces the fragmentation of the habitat. Our storm-water and erosion-control system far exceeds the standards as set by county and state.”

Similarly, Mayor VeHaun maintains that Woodfin is concerned about environmental impacts—including those parts of Reynolds Mountain that lie within its borders. “People aren’t seeing that they’re going to plant trees there to replace the ones that have been taken down; it’s not just clear-cutting,” says VeHaun. “We do have zoning regulations, we have green space; we’re encouraging greenways, and we’ve been cooperating with RiverLink on that. The environment’s something we’re aware of, and we’re not going to destroy it. We just don’t have a lot of regulations like Asheville does.”

Metcalf confirms that Reynolds Mountain is making an effort to restore some of the areas damaged by development. “We’re spending over $1 million on re-naturalization—and those plans have met with the approval of [local environmental nonprofit] Quality Forward,” he reports. “All the plants and trees we’re bringing back are going to be indigenous.”

Metcalf is also involved in the Woodfin Business Association, which he says “has gotten some real teeth in the last few years. … They meet with the mayor, they meet with the Board of Aldermen and express their views on economic expansion.” Besides playing a major role in supporting the liquor-by-the-drink referendum, the WBA has endorsed both the Reynolds Mountain and downtown projects.

Young, meanwhile, points out that Woodfin is fully zoned; many of the town’s requirements are stricter than the county’s proposed zoning, he asserts. And the downtown project is part of a new “urban village” district approved last year, which sets stricter standards for energy use and “green” building, says Young. And Metcalf reports that Reynolds Mountain plans to seek the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification for many of the downtown structures—a nationally recognized benchmark for sustainable design.

Good neighbors

Weaverville officials were also upset about Woodfin’s planned annexations. Some of the targeted areas—including most of Woodland Hills—had been part of Weaverville’s extraterritorial jurisdiction since 1987.

The move surprised Weaverville’s leaders, Town Manager Mike Morgan recalls. “Woodfin announced this annexation, and we get contacted by a lot of folks,” Morgan said. “These are the same folks who’ve been serving on our Planning and Zoning Board, our Board of Adjustment, who’ve been with the town for future growth since 1987—and now they suddenly were going to be annexed with another municipality.”

Weaverville passed a resolution protesting the move, and the two towns began hammering out an agreement. In November, after extensive negotiations, they struck a deal. For the next seven years, the boundary for future annexations between them will roughly follow New Stock Road—except for those parts of Woodland Hills that are suing Woodfin.

“I think it’s solved to everyone’s satisfaction,” says Morgan, and relations between the two towns have not been strained. He also notes that Weaverville doesn’t plan to change its own approach to annexation, which he calls “conservative” and mostly voluntary.

“We’re required by our own annexation policy to provide the same level of service to everyone, and we’re not going to take in new areas at the expense of that,” says Morgan. “We’re not just going to go out and annex for the sake of annexing. The area’s growing extremely fast—that’s a concern for all of us. But we believe that growth needs to be methodic, it needs to be steady, [though] we realize we can’t stop it.”

Weaverville has had its own development controversies, however. In November 2005, its Town Council approved the 86-acre Northridge Commons shopping center, which will include a Wal-Mart Supercenter, over the vehement objections of some residents.

For his part, Young says he considers the matter resolved. “Anytime you have neighbors, you have disagreements,” he notes. “We want to be good neighbors to Weaverville; we want to be good neighbors to the city of Asheville. We were able to come to an agreement on that.”

Even some Woodfin officials have raised concerns about the town’s growth, though they don’t always agree on what to do about it.

Don Honeycutt was the only one of Woodfin’s six aldermen who voted against the annexations, saying they contradicted the very reasons the town was originally incorporated. He did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the annexation battles, 33-year town resident Virgil Hollifield, who often attended and spoke at the board’s meetings, was appointed to fill a vacant seat. Alderman Hollifield, who runs Virgil’s Delivery Service, has spoken out against measures such as liquor by the drink, which he felt “might help with the tax revenues but isn’t worth the damage it will do to our families and communities,” but he supported the annexations.

“The old Woodfin may be a thing of the past—and that’s sad, because it’s those people that have made this town what it is today,” he says. “But there has to be growth; there has to be progress. We’ve got to expand to get the money to keep providing these services, because the prices sure aren’t going down. I’m 63, so I may be in a nursing home by the time all these changes finish, but it has to happen.”

Hollifield also cites at least one other reason for supporting the annexations, noting with a chuckle, “I might be a bit prejudiced on this—but anything to get ahead of Asheville.”

Still, Hollifield emphasizes that with so much high-priced development coming in (Reynolds Mountain units cost between $250,000 and $600,000, Metcalf reports), Woodfin must take steps to provide affordable housing and amenities for less-well-heeled residents.

“We need to have more affordable housing; we have to make sure that the police here or the people building all these new homes have a place to live too,” he maintains. “This is a good time here; we’re getting out of the reputation as sort of a big slum place. More affordable housing will help that along. The town also has to make sure we have community centers and places for the young people to go.”

Young, too, feels things have changed. “The world’s a very different place than it was 35 years ago,” he observes. “Buncombe County is certainly very different. There’s a lot of growth and development taking place in this region. As I would understand it, the position of the board is that as long as there’s growth and development taking place, the question becomes, ‘Does it benefit the people of Woodfin or not?’”

Whither Woodfin?

When all is said and done, Young sees a fundamental difference between Woodfin’s approach to expansion and Asheville’s.

“They’re doing more targeted annexations into areas that fit well with their service package; we’ve been more ambitious,” he points out. “We’ve got people who want to come into Woodfin because of the lower tax rates and maybe don’t want to get some of the services that they don’t want to pay for.”

Developers, he notes, continue to seek voluntary annexation by the town. “We’re expecting several soon, and I just received another one today,” he told Xpress recently.

Young doesn’t see that trend changing anytime soon. “Woodfin is certainly the fastest-growing municipality in the county; I would say it will be one of the fastest-growing in the state. Woodfin is emerging as a significant-sized town, and that’s going to continue. We actually have more houses being built now than existed in Woodfin in 2000.”

But those new residents, says Hollifield, will make it even harder to preserve the town’s traditional character. “A lot of people are moving in, and they do things differently than we have; they have a different outlook.”

Rayburn, meanwhile, fears the lack of adequate regulation will place a significant burden on future generations. “What’s the effect on regular people of all these McMansions going up?” she wonders. “We’re picking up the costs of all the extra traffic; we’re picking up the cost of extra law enforcement. We’re getting hit with the cost of erosion. What about the taxes? Eighteen percent of the people buying houses in Buncombe County are buying a second home. They’re pricing regular people right out of the market.”

Metcalf, though, maintains that there’s a positive side to rising property values. “Look back at the history of Woodfin and what properties have been worth,” he argues. “The town, in the whole scope of real-estate value, is significantly lower. To bring property values up here … will get them to where people can sell their houses at an equitable value with Asheville and surrounding communities.”

Reynolds Mountain, he adds, is also happy to respond to any group’s concerns. “Our organization is willing to speak in any forum. There’s some wonderful stories going on here—and we’re also willing to answer any criticism.”

Rayburn, however, says her group is concerned with the area as a whole—not just Woodfin. “At the end of the day, we’re not trying to tell Woodfin what to do. But people move here because they love the area, and what they love is disappearing,” she declares. “We want to make sure public policy-makers are paying attention to this—and it doesn’t seem like they are.”

[Freelance writer David Forbes is based in Asheville.]

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